Category Archives: Hugh Patterson

The Art of Chess

Beginners learn how to apply certain principles, such as the opening principles, to guide the movement of pawns and pieces during the early phase of the game. These guiding principles have stood the test of time and are proven to help the beginner master specific strategic and tactical ideas. However, there is a big difference between a rule and a principle. A rule is a rule, such as having to deal with a checked King. When your King is in check you must get out of the check (unless it is checkmate) before doing anything else. A principle however is different in that it can be broken. Often beginners treat principles as rules written in stone which can lead to mechanical thinking. Mechanical thinking can lead to lost games. To break beginners of this bad habitual way of thinking, I have them approach their examination of chess in a different way.

When faced with a problem in life, we sometimes find there are multiple solutions to resolve our dilemma. How we view the problem also plays heavily into how we solve our problem. It is in the way we view our problems that I have found a method to reduce mechanical thinking. Rather than simply look at a game of chess as a series of problems to be solved using a scientific approach, I have my students look at a game of chess as a blank canvas upon which a masterpiece can be painted.

In an art form like painting, the budding artist must first learn the craft’s underlying principles, such as composition and color theory. Our novice painter learns the principles of laying out a composition and studies the effects colors have on one another. Note I use the world principle not rule. In art, there are many principles but very few rules. In chess there are a finite set of rules regarding pawn or piece movement, check and checkmate, starting positions, etc, but everything else is left to the player, including the decision to employ or not employ principles. Of course, the use of these principles goes a long way towards achieving one’s goal, winning the game, but the end result of victory in many games has been achieved by bending or breaking specific principles. The trick is to know when to use these principles and when not to.

I want my beginning students to take calculated chances and play aggressively but only after learning the game’s principles and understanding why they’re so important. Once the beginner has a good grasp of the principles, it’s time to play less mechanically and think outside the box. To think outside of the box and breakaway from purely mechanical thinking, we must look at the game in a different light, as a blank canvas upon which both players have a chance to paint a personal masterpiece. I say personal masterpiece because I have yet to meet a beginner who will create a great masterpiece as found in the games of Bobby Fischer or Gary Kasparov. However, my students have the chance to create a bit of chess art all the same.

We approach the game with a discussion of artists and what made them so successful. The end result of the discussion is that the greatest artists took chances, choosing to wade into the waters of the unknown. Of course, taking ridiculous chances during a game of chess more often than not leads to loss. So why should the beginner take such a path along their journey to chess mastery? To achieve a better balance between mechanical (in the box) and non mechanical (outside the box) thinking comes to mind. A good way to introduce this idea is through the introduction of gambits.

While gambits follow principles, they allow players to be able to try something not so mechanical in nature. In the simplest terms, a gambit is the sacrifice of a pawn early in the opening in exchange for a better position. Gambits can be either accepted, in which case the offered pawn is captured by the opposition, or declined, in which case the opposition says “no thank you” and turns down your offer. Because you don’t know whether or not your offered pawn will be accepted or declined, you’re wading into slightly unknown waters or a non-mechanical situation.

Beginners are taught three basic opening principles: Putting a pawn on a central square, developing the minor pieces early (Knights and Bishops – positioned towards the board’s center) and the castling of the King. While this makes for good opening play, employing these techniques too mechanically can have dire consequences. Take the old chess adage “Knights before Bishops.” The idea behind this adage is that it is easier to get the Knight out early because it’s the only piece that can jump over pawns and pieces. Because of this, it is easier to get a Knight into game right away. However, there are occasions when it might be better to bring a Bishop out. If the beginner treats our old adage as a rule rather than a principle, he or she will ignore a better move involving a Bishop to adhere to the principles of opening play. An artist might have learned that laying lighter colors down before darker colors makes the technical process of painting easier but knows that a more interesting effect might be acquired by doing the opposite.

Gambits help beginners who know the basic principles of opening play to expand upon those principles, adding a more attacking quality to their game. In the King’s gambit, 1.e4…e5, 2.f4, White is offering Black his or her f pawn. Of course, if Black accepts the gambit and takes the f pawn (2.exf4), White will have a two to one pawn majority on the central files (a foundation for a better position). This gambit produces a different looking opening that say 1.e4…e5, 2.Nf3…Nc6. The idea behind my introduction of gambits to my students is to get them to think outside of the box in a non mechanical (at least for beginners) way.

I tell my students that with each new game they play, they are given the chance to create a masterpiece of chess art. When the game starts do they want to simply create a mere illustration of a scene or do they want to create something new and exciting? Of course, being beginners, they’re not likely to produce “the game of the century.” They might create a position that leads to a loss for them. However, they’ll learn a great deal in doing so. If they create an attack that backfires, they’ll have to be equally creative in finding a solution. They’ll stop automatically assuming that all principles should be followed as the letter of the law. I had a young student who never placed a piece on the rim or edge of the board even if it meant losing that piece. I asked him why and he said his father told him to never put a piece on the board’s rim (Knights on the rim are dim). I carefully explained that while pieces were not as powerful on the board’s rim, they could certainly be there if there was a good reason. Needless to say, he started doing much better after our conversation.

So you have the ability to create art on the chessboard but you have to be willing to accept the consequences of taking a chance. It could go your way or your game could fall apart. However, you’re going to learn more if you’re will to take a chance. I’m not suggesting huge chances, just small ones such as trying a gambit or considering a Bishop move before a Knight move. Like they say, if you want to make an omelet, you have to break a few eggs. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson


Balance and Harmony

In studying Tai Chi, I’ve learned about developing inner balance and maintaining harmony with the world around me. Studying the concepts of balance and harmony in context of an internal martial art made me realized how critical they are to chess. How often do beginners launch an attack only to have the position turned around on them, going from hunter to hunted? While the game’s goal is to checkmate your opponent’s King, requiring the player attempting the checkmate to play offensively, beginners should consider launching an attack only if their position is balanced and the attacking pieces are working harmoniously with one another. Too often, the beginner will launch an all or nothing attack against his opponent, proverbially placing all his or her eggs in one basket, leaving behind a weak position that will crumble if the attack fails. Balance and harmony apply to all facets of life, from health to chess.

Let’s look at the concept of balance first. When I think about the word “balance” I imagine a man walking a tightrope wire high above the ground, carefully keeping his body aligned so he doesn’t fall from the wire. In chess, you can think about balance as the relationship between your pawns and piece’s positions on the chessboard and that of your opponent’s pawns and pieces. In the opening, for example, both players may have developed their pawns and pieces to squares that equally control the board’s center. You could say that both players have a balanced position. If the idea of balance was thought of as an old fashion scale, like the scales of justice, both players’ positions would hang equally in relation to one another. However, if one player has better development the scale will tilt in his or her favor. A player should strive to have balance (or a tilting of the scale in their favor) before striking at their opponent’s position.

I use the idea of balance to help my students avoid launching premature attacks. Premature attacks are those in which one player attacks the opposition’s King while weakening their own position in the process. We see this happen often during the opening when a beginner will try to launch an early mating attack. A simple example of this is the Scholar’s Mate. The player commanding the White pieces trying to deliver this mate, brings his or her Kingside Bishop to c4 and Queen to h5, targeting the pawn on f7. A more seasoned player can simply develop his or her pieces carefully and leave White greatly behind in development. Being behind in development is not a balanced position. By aiming to maintain positional balance before launching attacks, the beginner increases his or her chances of being successful when attacking. Of course, there are exceptions but, the beginner needs to learn development and the concept of positional balance before looking at those exceptions.

Beginners can work on their balance skills through proper development. By proper development, I mean placing pawns and pieces on squares where they exert the greatest influence. After 1.e4…e5, White decides to move the Kingside Knight out onto the board. There are three squares the Knight can be moved to (e2, f3 and h3). However, one square is more active than the others, the square f3. This square influences the critical central squares d4 and e5. Because the Knight is attacking Black’s e5 pawn, Black needs to restore balance by defending that pawn. There are a number of ways to defend it but one stands out above the rest, developing the Queenside Knight to c6. This move defends the pawn and influences the center. Let’s say White decides to develop the Kingside Bishop on move three. Where should that Bishop go? If we want to control or influence the greatest number of squares we can with our Kingside Bishop, we’d move it to c4. Now the balance has shifted once again and Black as to restore it. Black might move his or her Kingside Bishop to c5. A game’s balance always shifts and it is up to the player whose balance has been lost to regain it through careful piece positioning. Once the beginner understands this, attacking will become more successful.

Now let’s talk about harmony. Balance and harmony go hand in hand. Applying harmony to chess, we could say that it is the relationship pawns and/or pieces share with one another. Often, in the games of beginners, we’ll see pawns and pieces scattered around the chessboard with no connection between them. Pawns are thrust out on the flank files and pieces are developed away from the center rather than towards the center. Even worse is the fact that these pawns and pieces are not supporting each other. After 1.e4…e5, 2.Nf3…Nc6, 3.Nc3…d6, d4…Nf6 and 5.d5, we see that White has (so far) developed his or her pieces harmoniously. The Knight on c3, for example protects the e4 and d5 pawns. The pawn on d5 attacks the Knight on c6. However it is protected by the Knight on c3, the pawn on e4 and the Queen. White’s army is working together. This harmony can be broken as the opposition attempts to balance out the position. Like balance, harmony must be maintained and your opponent is going to do everything in his or her power to stop you from doing so.

One thing the beginner can do to maintain harmony on the board is to ask a question before making a move, “Does this move allow my pieces to work together in harmony? A harmonious move is one that supports a pawn or piece, or controls new territory safely because it is supported by a pawn or piece. This teaches beginners to coordinate their pawns and pieces which reduce the number of pieces lost because they weren’t protected. Unprotected pieces are hanging pieces and pieces lost can quickly cost you the game. Note, the above examples are extremely simplified to give a basic visual example of the ideas. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.


Body and Mind

Twenty-eight years ago I was in the wrong place at the wrong time, leaving me fighting for my life. I happened to be working a part time job (having been at this job for just one week) as a cabinet maker in an industrial complex. Unbeknown to us, there was an illegal fireworks factory on the floor below our shop. One Friday afternoon, the individuals making the fireworks mixed the wrong chemical compounds together, blowing the building apart and causing the deaths of nine people. I suffered third degree burns on 35% of my body, a shattered right ankle and a fractured back. I also required reconstructive surgery on my face and hands. I was in the hospital for four months and had to have eleven surgical procedures. My ankle was considered so badly damaged that I was told I would, at best, have to use a walker or cane to get around. Today, I am able to walk for miles, box and practice Tai Chi. What does this have to do with chess?

Chess is a martial art of the mind or intellect and like martial arts, it requires training and dedication. As a student of this great game, I put a great deal of time into my studies. Fortunately, as a chess instructor, I’ve developed a good program of self study. I did this by following the advice of teachers such as Nigel Davies, Andrew Martin and Bruce Pandolfini, using their DVDs and books. I commit time each day to improve my game. However, even the seemingly best plan of action can fall short if it is not a truly complete plan. While my plan appeared to be solid, its success being reveled through my own improvement, it was lacking something extremely important. In fact, in retrospect, I now see that my initial plan was lacking immensely. It wasn’t that I was lacking the correct material to study or that I wasn’t putting the time into my studies. I had the mental part of my studies covered. What I didn’t have covered was my physical studies! I fed my mind but not my body!

Wait a minute; didn’t I just say that chess was an intellectual endeavor? What does feeding one’s body have to do with chess? It has everything to do with chess. Mind and body are directly related. When I say feeding your body, I don’t mean that literally. When we feed the mind, we do so through learning and through learning we challenge ourselves which keeps the mind sharp. When I say “feeding one’s body,” I’m not talking about feeding your body by ingesting food. I’m talking about exercise. A healthy body makes for a healthy mind and a healthy mind functions at higher levels which is what all chess players should want.

One thing that plagues most chess players is fatigue. Unless you’re a professional chess player, you most likely have to go to work or school every day which can be tiring. When you’re tired, you’re prone to making mistakes. I play my worst chess when I’m tired. Many players will resort to caffeinated beverages to give them an extra boast when they need it. However, what goes up must come down and eventually the caffeine wears off, leaving us in a greater state of tiredness. A good healthy diet can help balance you out but will not completely give your brain what it needs to run at maximum efficiency. This is where exercise comes in. Many people hear the world exercise and run the other way because they visualize themselves in a gym for hours a day, sweating and in pain. It was this type of mental image that kept me away from exercising during the early part of my life. However, after the accident, I had a choice. I could either accept my fate and hobble around for the rest of my life or fight back and exercise with my physical therapist. I chose to fight back and regained most of the use of my right leg. Yet, like many people, I stopped exercising when I felt I was in good shape. Thankfully, chess steered me back in the right direction.

Here’s how chess played a crucial role in my physical well being. While my game was improving through mental studies, I felt fatigued while I was playing or working on my game. I never felt quite on top of things, missing moves because my concentration was not optimal. When reading chess books, I always had to reread sentences over and over again because I was in a state of perpetual tiredness. My adopted father, a martial arts instructor, suggested the problem was with my body and not my mind. Therefore, I started pushing myself physically through a combination of walking, light boxing and Tai Chi. Before you panic, I’m not remotely suggesting that you have to do these three things to improve your mental abilities. However, it should be noted that physical activity really does help the mind. Therefore, I’m going to recommend a couple of things you can do that will help your brain function a bit better and reduce your fatigue.

The first thing I recommend is walking. Walking works wonders for both mind and body. Walking improves cognitive function and reduces age related brain deterioration, especially as you grow older. It also works wonders to reduce your stress level which leads to clearer thinking. As with all endeavors, set realistic goals. If you haven’t been on a walk in three years, don’t start out by trying a three mile jaunt. Start with a fifteen minute walk each day, building up to a thirty minute walk after two weeks and so on. Walking helps expand your lungs so you’ll be taking in more oxygen. The more oxygen you take in, the better your blood flow, leading to better brain function. Of course, there’s more to it, physiologically speaking, but page space is limited here. You’ll be surprised that, after a few weeks of walking, you’ll feel sharper at the chessboard.

The other thing I recommend is putting on a pair of wrist weights during part of your day. I use two pound wrist weights. Why put weights on your wrists? As you move your arms up and down during the course of the day, you’ll be getting a light conditioning of the upper body. You’ll be getting a bit of exercise and you’ll hardly know it. Start with a set of light weights (8-16 ounces). Both walking and using wrist weights are a good starting point for improving your physical stamina. Remember, body and mind are directly related to one another. This means if one suffers so does the other.

Small steps taken towards improving your physical state will bring you closer to achieving your goal, a better understanding of the game we all love. Remember, body and mind are closely related and to deny one is to deny the other. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week. Go take a walk before playing through it!

Hugh Patterson


Asking Questions

The chess student’s oath: Repeat after me, “If I don’t understand something, I will ask the instructor to explain it again and again and again if necessary.” All joking aside, asking questions seems to be a problem for many chess students. I teach my students to question everything. I also teach them that the only bad question is the one not asked. I’ve recently been observing my stronger students and asking myself the question, what is it that sets them apart from their classmates.

Of course, my more advanced students have arrived at their destination by working hard at their game, putting a great deal of time into their studies. However, there is more to it than that. One thing I’ve noticed is that these students ask a lot of questions. Why is asking questions so important to one’s success both on the chessboard and off the chess board (as in life)? The answer is surprisingly simple! You’ll learn more by asking questions!

When I teach my classes, I’ll present a master level game that demonstrates specific key concepts. Because my young beginners are new to the game, I’ll concentrate on the opening mechanics, middle game tactics and basic endgame play. In the opening for example, a series of obvious moves will be played that aid in controlling the board’s center. This makes perfect sense since our job in the opening is to control more space than our opponent. If we cannot control as much space on the board as our opponent we try to take squares away from the opposition. While is it relatively easy to see how certain moves help us in our opening goal, there are some moves that don’t immediately do this. To the beginner these moves may seem to be out of place, making no sense. However, to the more experienced player, these moves are seen to help set up a greater control of the board’s center later on in the opening. These moves are stepping stones leading to a stronger opening position. Yet many beginners will not raise their hands and ask the question “why was that move made?” Simply asking that question would help shed light on that move and help the beginner improve his or her game. However, they don’t ask and are suddenly lost, missing the bigger picture altogether.

I suspect that many people, both young and old, feel that asking questions makes them appear to be uninformed. Some people even feel foolish asking simple question because they don’t want to appear to be stupid to those around them. I went to a chess lecture once and, while the start time was listed, there was no end time mentioned. While sitting down, waiting for the lecture to start, I overheard I number of people asking when the lecture ended. When the head of the chess club came out to introduce the guest lecturer he welcomed us and asked if there were any questions. No one raised their hand to ask the obvious question on the minds of many participants, when the event ended. Of course, I raised my hand and asked the question. I was surprised that a few of those I overheard earlier asking about the lecture’s ending time now scoffed at my question. This was a good example of why many people don’t ask questions. If given the choice between being informed and being foolish, I’ll take being informed!

If you undertake the process of learning something, it is your job as a student to ask questions. While experienced teachers can anticipate many questions and answer them before they’re asked, they’re not mind readers. This means you, the student, have to take it upon yourself to ask any questions you want an answer to. Asking questions leads to a better grasp on the subject matter. A better grasp on the subject is how you start the journey to mastery.

If you’re studying an opening with your chess teacher and understand the first eight moves but get stuck on the reasoning behind the ninth move, don’t assume that move nine will make sense a move or two later. Stop and ask your teacher why move nine was made. It may be the case that your question will be answered by playing through the next few moves. However, your teacher will now know that you had trouble understanding move nine and focus his or her explanation of the next few moves around your question. As a student, you have to let your teacher know when you’re having difficulty understanding something.

One idea that helps both student and teacher is to clarify your questions. Rather than ask a vague question, try to ask a question that gets to the heart of the matter. If move seven of a specific opening for White makes no sense to you, ask the question “why did White move the c pawn to c3 (for example) on move seven?” This is a clear question that can be addressed by the teacher as opposed to saying “I’m not sure about that c pawn move.” Clear questions get clear answers. If the teacher’s answer doesn’t make sense, ask them to explain it again. I have no problem with going over a position a few times with my students and appreciate the fact that they obviously want to understand the lesson being taught!

If you’re a self learner, you probably work with books and DVDs. While you can’t ask the author of a book or lecturer on a DVD questions, you can write questions down on a piece of paper while reading the book or watching the DVD. This is important! Too often, we read a chess book or watch a chess DVD, think of a question and then forget about it later on. As you read the book or watch the DVD, jot down every question that comes to mind. Often, with good authors and lecturers, the question is answered soon after you’ve written it down. However, there are times when it may not be addressed. If this happens, try to find an answer to question elsewhere, such as online. Then go back and reread or re-watch the section where your question first came up. Of course, this means you’ll take longer to complete your studies but you’ll be far more knowledgeable by doing so. We have access to huge world of chess information and can use it to our advantage if we ask simply ask questions. Asking questions is the key to truly understanding a subject and by asking questions, your understanding of the subject will be greatly improved. Remember, no one masters a subject without dedication and hard work. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson


Learning from Chess History

I noticed a great deal of commentary at various chess sites lately regarding the fact that younger players know little about chess in a historical context. I’m not talking about the game’s origins but about the many fantastic players that elevated the game to its current status. I decided to see just how little many (but not all) younger chess players know about previous generations of players by asking a room full of junior players to name some chess players from the past few centuries. Of course, Bobby Fischer was mentioned as well as Paul Morphy and a handful of other well known players (of course, Nigel Davies is always mentioned by my students). However, I was shocked that the list of names was so small. A parent asked me later, why a knowledge of chess players was important, after all isn’t it about just playing the game? While I had to shut my mouth to keep any snarky commentary from pouring out, I did think long and hard about this question. Here’s my answer.

If you want to really understand an opening, for example, you have to understand it mechanics. To fully understand those mechanics, you need to study the opening’s evolution. This means starting with the earliest incarnation of the opening and following it through its history. Here’s an analogy: When I purchased my first car it was used or previously owned. Sure enough, it broke down after about eighteen months. I took it to the mechanic who told me it would be $800.00 to fix. I knew nothing about cars, except how to drive one, so the mechanic could have been cheating me for all I knew. Chess openings are like cars. You may be able to drive your car but driving that car doesn’t give you any real insight into the underlying mechanics. Therefore, I took an automotive repair class. The teacher took us through the history of the combustion engine. Of course, someone asked why we were studying outdated and obsolete engines and our teacher sternly stated that you could not understand the complexity of a modern engine until you understood the basic mechanics of simpler engines, such as those from the past. The same holds true with chess openings. So what does this have to do with chess players from the past? Well, who do you think developed these chess openings and improved upon them? That’s right, many brilliant chess players from the game’s rich history.

In the classroom, we’ll spend two or three weeks looking at the history of an opening and the chess players that contributed to that opening, from early practitioners to modern players who refined it. I usually choose the Italian Game, one of the oldest known openings, because examples of this opening can be found from the late 1500s. It is also an opening that is played by master level players today. Here’s an example of an early game I use in our exploration of the Italian Opening:

The game was played in 1575 between Polerio and Lorenzo. I set the stage for this game by talking about what the world was like back then, especially as it relates to chess. Of course we talk about chess players from this time period. Chess players today are spoiled by the wealth of chess information available to them. I point out that simply acquiring a chess book in the 1500s was next to impossible. Chess knowledge was gained through playing the game. Early pioneers of the game had to gain experience in battle rather than refer to the theory books! While there are some rather clumsy moves made in the above game, we also see moves that lay the foundation for more modern versions of this opening such as 4.c3. In the above game, the move 4.c3 provides support for the eventual push of the d pawn to d4. After going through a few more games employing this opening from later centuries, we find ourselves playing through a more current game:

I remind my students of the first four moves in the first game we looked at, pointing out that even though over four hundred years has passed, the game’s initial four moves have remained the same. What does this mean to the beginner? It means that this opening has stood the test of time. While it may not be a Grandmaster favorite, it can work well for the beginner. We discuss the players of the above game, examining a few informative facts about each of them.

We compare each game we study with the previous game studied, looking at the evolution, in this case, of the Italian Opening. Surprisingly, my young students enjoy what might be considered a tedious task by less than enthusiastic adults because there is history involved. We look at the bigger picture while studying the smaller one. We talk about Italy in depth and the players that changed this opening into what it is today.

As a final examination of the Italian Opening, I set up two chessboards. On one board, we’ll play through the game from 1575 and on the other, the game from 2008. We play the games simultaneously, move for move. White makes the first move on board one and board two, then black. When we get to move four for black (on both boards) we see a parting of the ways so to speak. We look at the placement of the Queen in front of the King (1575 4…Qe7) and talk about the dangers of such a placement. We compare that to the smarter and more active move 4…Nf6 (2008). We continue to play through both games simultaneously, comparing moves. I’ve found that examining an opening from a historical perspective helps my students further understand the opening’s underlying mechanics and appreciate the players who developed them. Like my auto shop teacher said, you can’t understand a complex engine until you master the workings of a simple one.

I’ve also instated a new extra credit exercise in which my students have to research historical chess players and tell me a bit about them. The extra credit points can be redeemed for additional chess lessons from me. I don’t want my students to be ignorant of the many brilliant players that helped shape the game I love so much. I also encourage them to work at their game because one day they might be one of the game’s great players! They might become a part of the game’s history. Chess has a wonderful history whose great players have shaped. Let’s not let this history fade into obscurity. See you next week.

Hugh Patterson


Flexible Options

Beginners tend to play chess without a real plan which leads to disaster. The novice player often thrusts pawns and pieces out onto the board, hoping for the best while more experienced players make moves that build up to something. That something is the culmination of their overall plan which hopefully leads to checkmate. While checkmate is the game’s goal, how you get there requires planning. A solid plan paves the road that leads to a winning game. A plan is a series of steps, or moves in the case of chess, that help you achieve your goal (checkmate). It takes a series of smaller plans to achieve the overall plan, checkmating the opposition’s King. The plan you employ varies depending on the phase of the game.

A good introduction to planning can be found in the three basic opening principles; controlling the board’s center with a pawn (in most cases), developing the minor pieces to active squares and castling (King safety and Rook activation). These three principles allow the beginner to formulate an opening plan and reach his or her goals based on that plan. While there are additional principles to consider, I tend to start my beginning students out with these three principles because they’re fairly straight forward. We’ll use the opening phase of the game to introduce the concept of planning because it is easier for the beginner to see how these three basic principles lay the foundation of good planning.

I start off my class lecture on planning by asking my students how they get from home to school each day. Students often tell me that they walk to a designated bus stop at a designated time, get on the bus which then takes them on a specific route to school. I point out that this is their daily overall plan for getting to school. However, there are steps (smaller plans) required to achieve this overall plan! The student has to get to the bus stop in a timely manner which requires waking up at a specific time, getting dressed, etc. The bus driver also has to wake up at a specific time as well as making sure the bus is fueled, etc. To achieve the greater goal of going from home to school requires a series of smaller plans that are all intertwined with one another. Once my students understand the concept of planning, it’s time to apply this new found knowledge to the chessboard.

With the most basic understanding of planning at their finger tips, beginners start to look at chess in a different light. They now see that the goal of winning their games requires planning during each of the game’s phases. The enlightened student now makes concrete plans for each and every move. It is at this point that many beginners start to create unrealistic plans, such as absolute control of the board’s center during the opening. While this is the goal of the opening phase of the game, we have to remember that our opponent is trying to do the same thing, controlling the board’s center! This means that both players’ plans are going to clash which is what makes chess so interesting. It also brings up an important pair of planning concepts, being flexible and maintaining options.

We know that our opponent is trying to achieve the same goal in the opening, central square control. If you move a pawn to a square that controls the center your opponent is likely to do the same. This means that your opponent is going to contest your control of the center with each and every move. What happens if you make three of four pawn and minor piece moves to control a specific square only to have your opponent make a series of moves that allows them to dominate that square before you do? This is where beginners get into trouble with their planning. Because they’ve spent so many moves trying to control the square in question, they often keep trying to control a square that has been lost to the opposition simply because they’ve put their plan into action and want to see it through. This is where flexibility comes into play.

What do I mean by flexibility? Let’s look at pawn moves to help define this term. Pawns can only move forward, which means that once the pawn has been moved out onto the board there’s no turning back. If you move a pawn, that pawn is committed to the square it’s on. Pawns can only capture diagonally, so they’re easily stopped dead in their tracks by other pawns and pieces (blockading). They have their advantages but have less flexibility of movement than the pieces do.

The pieces, because they can move in multiple directions, don’t have the same limitations as the pawns. This can be thought of as greater flexibility. What this means to our planning is that we can move a piece to a square that defends or attacks our target square as well as controlling other key squares. Take the position reached after 1.e4…e5, 2.Nf3…Nc6. Let’s look at the Knight on f3. This Knight attacks the e5 pawn. However, more importantly, it contests the Black Pawn’s (e5) control of d4 as well as covering the g5 and h4 squares from a Black Queen attack on the King-side. The Knight on f3 is on a flexible square. This gives White greater options or flexibility.

I mentioned earlier that your opponent is also fighting for control of the board’s center during the opening. Using our opening principles to guide us is no guarantee that we’ll control the center completely or before our opponent does. After 1.e4…e6, 2.d4…d5 (The French Defense), white decides to play 3.Nd2 (The Tarrasch Variation). This could be considered an example of a flexible move. The Knight on d2 protects the e4 pawn. Students will ask me, why not move the Knight to c3 instead? The answer has to do with flexibility. By moving the Knight to d2, white can move his c pawn which would be blocked by the Knight if it was on c3. It’s a matter of flexibility.

Planning must be flexible as well. The game will change as the position changes. A King-side attack, which seemed correct three or four moves ago, may suddenly be pointless due to a change in position. Your plan should be flexible, able to change when the position changes. If your original plan was to attack on the King-side and your opponent managed to build up a stronger defense on that side of the board, you may have to attack on the Queen-side. If all your pieces were poised on the King-side, you’d have to swing them over towards the Queen-side. However, the player with knowledge of flexible planning might have stationed his key attacking pieces on squares that have quick access to the both sides of the board. Using an empty board, place a white Bishop on e2 and on e3. These two Bishops control diagonals on both the King-side and Queen-side. If the action shifts to one side or the other, either Bishop can get into the action quickly. If the Bishops were posted on the squares on one side or the other, it would be slower going to reach the action on the opposite side of the board.

Having options allows a player to deal any positional crisis that might arise. Having options can lead to a winning advantage. Therefore, when developing pieces during any phase of the game, ask yourself this; is there a square for my piece that allows me greater flexibility and more options? Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson


The Clock is Ticking

After students have learned the basics and played a number friendly OTB (over the board) games, they often want to try out their newly acquired chess skills at a local tournament. Tournament games are played using chess clocks which requires time management skills. If there is one problem that plagues the beginner, it’s the problem of time management. Beginners, at the start of their chess careers, often make moves too quickly. As their game improves, they start to spend a far greater amount of time studying the positions that arise in their games. While it is crucial to spend as much time as possible studying a position, beginners can spend too much time on that position, especially when they’re playing in a tournament that allots a specific amount of time to make a specific number of moves. Therefore, I teach specific classroom lessons to help tournament rookies learn proper time management. I’ll introduce tournament rules, game time, etc in a later article. For now, we’ll look at some basic time management concepts.

Beginners, especially younger beginners, have a tendency to make moves at lightning speed. Slowing them down becomes a challenge for their instructor. One reason for this is because younger players have a different sense of time. If you’re an adult, you may have noticed that time seems to move more quickly as you get older. It seems to be the opposite for children. Ask a small child to sit absolutely still for one minute. Most tend to start fidgeting after thirty seconds. Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule. Teaching patience to the beginner is a key first step towards mastering time management.

When teaching beginners how to manage their time, I start by having them take one full minute to think about their move. While only a mere sixty seconds, a minute can seem like a lifetime to a child. This sixty second “lifetime” can lead to instant boredom. This being the case, the young mid must not be allowed to wander. Therefore, the student is assigned a basic task to accomplish during this one minute time interval. That task is to come up with three possible moves they can make in any given position. I use a stop watch, announcing increments of fifteen seconds as the minute passes. This lets the student know how much time is passing during their thought process. The idea is to train students, especially the younger ones, to slow down and put some thought into the position. Once students are used to working within a one move per minute time frame, we a lot two minutes of time per move, announcing the passage of those two minutes in thirty second intervals. The same task is assigned, three possible moves within a given position. How long this training phase takes is dependent on the age of the student. The overall goal of this phase of their time management training is to get students used to working within time frames.

Now we move on to a timed game using a chess clock. With my younger students, I start them off with 60 minutes on their clocks, reducing the clock time as their time management skills mature. While the number of minutes a player has to complete his or her game/moves varies, depending on the type of tournament, this number is easier to work with for training purposes. We break the sixty minutes down to three twenty minute phases to coincide with the game’s three phases (opening, middle and endgame).

During these training sessions, they have sixty minutes to win, draw or lose on time. It is crucial for students new to clock based play to remember that they are not only playing against a human opponent but against a clock as well. If you run out of time, you can lose the game. This is where good time management can become a winning edge!

The game of chess has three phases, the opening, middle and endgame. Because I assess my student’s strengths and weaknesses in class, I know where they’re apt to run into trouble with their time management. I meet with each student prior to their first timed game and tell them where they’re going to need the greatest amount of clock time. The first timed game a student plays is their trial run. After each move is recorded, I have the student write down the clock time next to that move (both students playing record their individual clock time after each move). After the game is finished, we can examine how long each move took and see where the time trouble started. Since I work with beginners and young improvers, we have to take small steps to master time management. Taking small learning steps helps to avoid overwhelming the beginning and creates achievable goals.

Once we isolate which phase of the game the time problems started in, we have a closer look. Was it during the middle game? If so, was it a tactical problem or a strategic problem? I like to ask students what they were trying to immediately accomplish when the time trouble started. Were they trying to launch an attack or defend against one? This is the time to ask as many questions of the student as possible. The end result of these questions is to identify the problem and outline a system of study that will help streamline the solution. We also look at their opponent’s time issues as well with both students comparing their problems.

You can also use your opponent’s clock time as well! What do I mean by this? Both players have sixty minutes on their clocks. This means that you can put your opponent’s time to good use! While your opponent is thinking through his or her move, you can use that time to carefully examine the position. I have my students ask themselves a number of questions while their opponent’s clock is ticking away: Are my pawns and pieces protected? Can I tighten up my pawn structure? Are their weak spots in my opponent’s position? Can I employ any tactics? There are a large variety of useful questions that can be asked. The point is that we should be looking at the position and using our opponent’s time to our advantage.

Some beginners get into time trouble early in the opening. If you’re playing a sixty minute game and spend thirty minutes on your opening, you now have thirty minutes left for both your middle and endgame, so time problems in the opening create middle and endgame time problems. A beginner might be facing a stronger player who plays a specific opening. It might be an opening that our beginner doesn’t know. Time trouble is time trouble no matter where it takes place within the game. Those minutes wasted during the opening can take away from the time needed to calculate a position in the middle or endgame. If you’re unclear about an opposition move made during the opening, use basic opening principles to help with the decision making process. All good openings adhere to the opening principles (there are some exceptions).

During the middle game, consider bringing your pieces to more active squares before launching attacks. Many beginners lose time trying to find potential tactical strikes in positions where there are none. Active piece placement makes finding and employing tactics easier. I’m holding off on endgame time management for now because most beginners in my classes don’t reach the endgame phase during their initial time management training. I’ll cover this in a later article.

We continue to play these sixty minute games throughout the school session so my students have a basic feel for time management. We carefully work on their weaknesses so they don’t run into the same time problems again during their games. I compare the recorded time increments on my student’s score sheets each month to check their progress and make lesson adjustments where necessary. It should be noted that I provide a handout to each student with questions he or she should be asking themselves during the game. This helps to keep them focused and using their and their opponent’s time wisely. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson


Which Chess Animal Are You?

As I’ve watched my younger beginning students play over the years, I’ve noticed that their style of play tends to parallel their personalities. While there are always exceptions to any observation, I’ve found, in general, that outgoing and aggressive children tend to play chess in a more aggressive and outgoing manner. They tend to favor attacking while reserved children tend to play more defensively. Of course, as they learn more about the game, they can change their chess personalities as they mature. I had a young student once ask me what kind of chess player he was. The young man was new to chess and extremely bright, wanting an answer to this question so he could concentrate his studies in the right area. This single question brought up some interesting points and problems regarding just how to answer such a question when the questioner is a child.

With an adult, a discussion could be initiated by exploring basic psychology and personality traits. We could create a profile based on our discussion. The profile would help identify character traits that would define the individual’s personality. However, with children, you can’t really have the same discussion because many of the concepts you’d be discussing with them would have no real meaning to the child. Knowing a child’s personality is a key factor in successful teaching both on and off the chessboard. Connecting with your students requires knowing a bit about their personalities.

While my chess classes are all about improving one’s chess skills, I also like to introduce other subjects or topics into my lessons. I do so because it demonstrates how intricately woven the game of chess is into the fabric of our world. When we examine the Italian opening, we talk a bit about Italy. When talking about the Fischer-Spassky match in 1972, we discuss the cold war (in gentler terms since I’m working with children). Because my students love chess, they’re inclined to be open-minded if I introduce a bit of art, science, geography or math in my lectures. I want my students to use the game of chess as a starting point for the greater exploration of knowledge in general!

In thinking about how to determine my student’s chess personalities I had a sudden realization that all my students shared one common interest, a love of animals. Younger or older, boy or girl, all my students had favorite animals. It was here that I decided to pose the question to them, what kind of animal are you?

Of course, with over 300 students, I had to streamline the questioning. I first defined the word personality as the things that make you who you are. If you help your friends you’re kind. If you aren’t easily frightened, you’re brave, etc. After going through a number of examples with my students, I created a list of thirty words we could use. I asked each student to write down five of those words that described their personalities. It was extremely interesting to see how each of my students saw themselves in relation to other students and adults. I was quite surprised at some of the lists that were created. Students I thought to be reserved viewed themselves as more aggressive and vice versa. I learned a great deal about each of my students through their lists of personality traits. Once we had the individual lists created, it was on to the animals.

My students know that creativity earns extra points in my classes. For example, I hold a checkmate of the month contest. The student with the most interesting checkmate for that month wins the contest. I take photographs of student checkmates, compare them to one another and the most unique mate wins. I started this contest to get my students to use pieces other than the Queen and Rooks when delivering mate. When approaching the subject of animals, I spoke with their regular classroom teachers to discover what animals those teachers had introduced in their curriculums. After my teacher consultations, I made a list of twenty animals, ranging from turtles to tigers. We dispensed with distinctions such as mammal versus non-mammal to keep things simple. I gave my students the list of twenty choices, mentioned that they could chose animals not on the list. Of course, a few students asked if animals not on the list were worthy of extra credit points (and yes they were worth extra credit points).

Under each animal on our list of twenty, were character traits of that animal. The Cheetah, for example has five character traits. The Cheetah was brave, aggressive, fast, careful (cautious) and smart. Each of the animals on the list had their own individual traits. I gave my students one week to find their animal. After my students had chosen their animals, I told them it was now time to own that animal. Most students asked what “owning their animal” meant. I explained that to own your animal, you had to write a brief half page biography of the animal demonstrating that you truly knew your animal. Once you did this, you understood your animal and could claim it (its personality traits) as your own. By writing the animal’s biography, you became the animal. I was pleasantly surprised that the majority of the written papers were over a page in length.

My favorite animal choice was the Hippopotamus. One of my advanced students said he was a Hippo. I asked him why. He said that everyone thought he was cute and nice. He went on to say the Hippo was very cute until it charged at you with his sharp teeth. I said “sharp teeth? I thought they were dull?” Apparently, the sides of the Hippo’s teeth are sharp, something I didn’t know and discovered through my student’s research. Knowing how this particular student played chess, I knew why he chose the Hippo. He chose the Hippo because he could produce devastating attacks from a seemingly passive position!

Once the students had become their animals (metaphorically speaking), it was time to apply this to the game of chess. We created a list of chess personalities, ranging from totally aggressive and attacking to defensive and positional, matching the student’s animals with their chess personality. Once the children had their chess personality, we started work on strengthening their traits. With aggressive attacking players, we worked on making their attacks more coordinated. With defensive players we worked on building up their defensive skills.

Of course, these student’s chess personalities will change over time as their personality changes and their game gets better. However, this provides them with s starting point, allowing them to build a better foundation for their game. Speaking of games, here’s one to enjoy until next week! What kind of chess animal are these two players?

Hugh Patterson


Knights Versus Bishops

When we first learn the game of chess, we’re taught the relative values of the pawns and pieces. Pawns serve as the basis for this system of valuation, having a relative value of one. The Queen, the most powerful of the pieces, has a relative value of nine while the Rooks have a relative value of five. Lastly, there are the minor pieces and this is where beginners often run into trouble. Both the Knights and Bishops have a relative value of three. However, this value can fluctuate depending on specific positional circumstances. To merely think of either of these minor pieces (Knight or Bishop) as being equal under all circumstances can lead to disaster! Note, I’m leaving the King’s value out of this discussion because the King is priceless and normally comes into play later on in the game when there are fewer pieces on the board.

It helps the beginner if he or she truly understands the meaning of the word “relative.” As generally defined by the dictionary, relative means something, such as a chess piece, considered in relation or in proportion to something else, such as other chess pieces. This definition should extend beyond merely comparing one piece or pawn to another. It can be used, in chess terms, to compare a piece to a specific situation or position on the chessboard and it is within this idea that the beginner often becomes befuddled.

Knights and Bishops share a relative value based on the limitations of their movement. The Knight is a short distance piece, meaning that (because of its unique yet limited way of moving) it moves rather slowly. The Bishop, on the other hand, can cover great distances in a single move, making it a long distance piece. However, the Bishops can only travel diagonally along squares of the same color. One Bishop starts on a light colored square and the other on a dark colored square. The Bishops can never change square colors. Unlike the Bishop, the Knight can cover both light and dark squares. A Knight that starts on a light square ends its move on a dark square and vice versa. So the slow moving Knights can cover all the squares on the board while each Bishop can only cover half the squares on the board. Knights are short distance attackers or defenders while Bishops are long distance attackers or defenders.

I mentioned that the value of these minor pieces can fluctuate depending on positional situations. To understand this we have to understand two key types of positions, opened and closed. In an open position, the board contains open or partially open ranks, files and diagonals. This means that long distance pieces, such as the Bishops have room to move or mobility. A Bishop can control a great deal of territory in an open position. In a closed position, the ranks, files and diagonals are blocked by pawns and pieces. In a closed position, the Bishop’s mobility is limited. However, the Knight’s special ability to jump over other pieces allows it move around with greater freedom. This ability to jump over other pieces (both friendly and enemy) allows the Knight to ignore traffic jams, especially at the board’s center. Another important consideration is that you cannot block an attack by a Knight, which adds to their value (depending upon the position of course).
Beginners are first taught simple e pawn openings which lead to open games. The Italian opening is one that serves to help teach basic opening principles, which is why many beginners learn it. As previously mentioned, an attack by a Knight cannot be blocked. This is one of the Knight’s special powers, the other being the ability to jump over other pieces. The Bishop has its own special power, in addition to being a long distance piece, the ability to pin. Take a look at the example below:

In this example, the Bishop is pinning the Knight on f3 to its Queen on d1. There are two types on pins, relative and absolute. In a relative pin, as seen in our example, the Knight could move but Black could capture the White Queen, gaining a material advantage early on. In an absolute pin, the piece being pinned is the King, which means that as long as the pin is maintained, the pinned piece cannot move since it is illegal to expose the King to check. I’m using the above example to illustrate a point regarding the relative value of the Knight and Bishop. We know the Knight and Bishop have a relative value of three. However, are the Knight and Bishop involved in our example’s pin really equal in value, given the current position? Our poor Knight on f3 is temporarily stuck there. If he moves, the Queen is lost. The Knight’s mobility has been seriously hampered or has it? We’ll answer that question later on. By being a victim of the Bishop pin, the White Knight has lost some value.

The Bishop, on the other hand, has some mobility along the h3-c8 diagonal. More importantly, the Bishop is doing an important job. He is keeping the f3 Knight out of the game or is he? Having some mobility and performing an important task such as a relative pin, the Bishop appears to be of greater value. Piece mobility is crucial, especially with Bishops. Since Bishops are long distance pieces, they do best when they have maximum mobility which means greater control of territory on the board. This is why it is best not to lock in our Bishops in an open position. Try to give them as much mobility or freedom as possible. Now let’s take a look at another example. I’ve changed things bit to answer the questions asked earlier.

We see the basic position with a slight change in position. The Knight on f3 is still being pinned to the Queen by the Black Bishop on g4. However, White ignores the pin and captures the pawn on e5. Black, using the relative value system taught to all beginners, captures the White Queen with his Bishop. He thinks this is a wonderful gain in material. Why would White give up his Queen? Because he is about to deliver a deadly checkmate! After White’s Queen is captured, The Bishop on c4 captures the f7 pawn, checking the Black King. The King has to move to e7 and White delivers mate with the following move, Nd5! The point of showing you this is to demonstrate that simply using the relative value system to guide you doesn’t guarantee a winning game. Yes, Black did capture a piece of great relative value with his Bishop. However, having more material than your opponent doesn’t mean you’ll win the game.

Using relative value as a strict measure of a piece value leads to mechanical thinking and mechanical thinking can be a bad thing! When my students start a game, I always ask them to assess the value of their Knights and Bishops throughout the game, using the ideas mentioned earlier. Interestingly, I notice that these minor pieces tend to stay in my student’s games a bit longer and get treated with the respect they deserve. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

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Hugh Patterson


Middle Game Principles

Beginners are taught that the middle game in chess is the realm of tactics. Playing through the games of the masters, we often see amazing tactical fireworks erupting on the board during this phase of the game. However, when the beginner tries to produce their own tactical fireworks, they often fizzle out. This happens because the beginner doesn’t understand how to build up a position that creates a solid tactical strike. To the beginner, the master seems to create tactical fireworks out of thin air, as if they were a magician. If the beginner studies the game closely, they’ll be able to see how the master builds up a position that allows them to employ specific tactics. However, this requires the understanding of a few basic middle game principles or ideas. These principles have an added bonus of reinforcing the use of opening principles since your middle game is only as good as your opening. Here are a few ideas I teach to my students regarding the middle game:

Build up your position before launching an attack. After you’ve developed your pieces to active squares during the opening phase of the game, look at each piece and ask yourself the question, “Can I improve this piece’s position?” Can you move your pieces to more active squares, those that control more territory on the board? Since both players are trying to achieve the same goal in the opening, good pawn and piece placement, chances are that some of your pawns and pieces have not reached their most active squares. This happens because your opponent got some of his or her pawns and pieces to squares that control the squares you wish to occupy. If you can get your pieces to their most active squares prior to launching an attack, you increase the chances of your attack being successful.

Don’t consider launching an attack until you have control of the board’s center. Too often, beginners launch premature attacks before they have any real control of the board’s center. One of two things happens. Either they don’t have enough centralized firepower to successfully attack, which is easily rebuffed by their opponent, or their lack of central control allows their opponent to launch a more successful counter attack. If you have only half of your available forces committed to the board’s center and your opponent has the majority of his forces committed to the board’s center, you’re out gunned. You will also have your already weak central forces further weakened by a counter attack which is why you have to build up a strong position in the center before attacking. Trying to attack with a minority force will further weaken your position. To avoid this problem, build up your army around the board’s center before attacking. When you’re ready to attack, always count the number of attackers and defenders. You’ll need to have more attackers than defenders to ensure a successful attack and more defenders than attackers when facing an attack. Moving pawns and pieces to their most active squares helps you reach a stronger middle game position.

If your opponent attacks you on the flanks, do not fight back on the flanks (unless you cannot avoid it). Beginners often rush their pawns and pieces into the action, wherever it is. However, your opponent may have ulterior motives for a flank attack, such as trying to divide your forces and weaken your position. Let’s say that you’ve followed the opening principles and have built up a strong presence at the board’s center. Your opponent may attack you on one of the flanks hoping you’ll divert pieces that make up your strong central position away from the center to fight back. If you do this, your central control is weakened and your opponent has a chance to strengthen his or her position (in th4e center). If your opponent attacks you on the flanks, fight back not on the flanks but at the board’s center. You opponent has sent part of his army to fight away from the board’s center. Therefore, he is weakening any grasp he has on the central squares. This creates a perfect opportunity to counter attack an already weak center. This has the added bonus of further dividing your opponent’s forces. You pawns and pieces should work together to maintain control of the center rather than go off on a wild, center weakening goose chase on the flanks.

Maintain the ability to quickly mobilize your forces to any part of the board quickly. Having previously said that we should maintain a strong presence in the center during the middle game, it is important to remember that one player or the other is eventually going to try and weaken their opponent’s position and it may be elsewhere on the board, such as near a castled King. As the middle game progresses, a weakness in a player’s position may become apparent and then become the target of an attack. If you’re the attacker, you need to be able to rapidly deploy your pieces to your opponent’s weak spot and attack. If you’re the player with the positional weak spot, you need to marshal your forces quickly to defend your position. While you should lock down the board’s center early in the middle game, you don’t want to create such a rigid position that you can’t move your army quickly into battle elsewhere on the board. How do you do this?

Keep your pieces off of the edge of the board. The reason the center of the board is so critical during the opening and early middle game is because pieces have greater power when they’re centralized. By greater power, I mean the ability to control more squares on the board. A piece such as the Knight, stuck on the Queenside, is going to take a long time to reach the action if it’s over on the Kingside. Centralized pieces have the ability to move into the action a lot faster than pieces on the board’s edges.

Watch your pawn structure during the middle game. Beginners have a tendency to ignore pawn structure going into the middle game. Strongly placed pawns can create a headache for your opponent. Use pawns to protect pawns, rather than using the minor pieces for babysitting duties. One exercise I have my students do it to set up a second board next to them as they play against other students in my classes. Only pawns are set up on the second board . Each time a move is made on the actual game board that involves a pawn, the corresponding move is made on the “pawn structure board.” This allows the students to see their pawn structure throughout the game very clearly since there are no pieces on that board. It takes a bit of work but it serves to illustrate how a player’s pawn structure is laid out (weak or strong) as the game progresses.

Lastly, activate your Rooks. I am amazed at how many junior players simply ignore their Rooks until the endgame. After moving your Queen up a rank in the opening, your Rooks are connected. Even during the early part of the middle game, Rooks can back up pawns and pieces from the safety of their starting rank.

While there are a number of other middle game considerations, I start beginners off with this short list to get them thinking about good middle game play. In a later article, I’ll talk about some of these additional middle game ideas. However, it is best not to overwhelm the beginner with too much in the way of theory. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson